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New York AIPSG Conference Focuses on Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence, Problem of Identity Crisis

The sixth annual conference of the Association of Indian Progressive Study Groups (AIPSG) was held in New York on Saturday November 23, 1996 to mark the launch of its program on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence. Some 45 activists and participants from New York, Boston, Washington DC., Detroit and other cities took part in the proceedings that also dwelt on the crucial question of identity, particularly as it has emerged in relation to second generation South Asian youth abroad.

The first session of the conference, titled "India: Fifty Years after Independence" began with the presentation of a message sent by Hardial Bains, titled "To Be or Not to Be." In his speech, Hardial Bains placed the work of the AIPSG within the following context:

The question "to be or not to be" is facing the entire peoples of the world but primarily in the form of their being as collectives. If collectives in the form of a nation or in the form of the working class cannot be affirmed, how can there be an affirmation of the individual? An affirmation pledged by the status quo is an affirmation which is merely of the most powerful financial oligarchy and the negation of all others.

People will affirm themselves through their work to carry out the deep going transformations which are the order of the day. They can do so only by thinking out things themselves. They can only think out things by beginning from the present state of being, the state of the collective,the all-round economic, political and cultural life, the very condition of being. The topics set for this conference begin from the present, from the very state of being.

This was followed by a number of presentations dealing with the problems that have emerged as the most pressing after fifty years of India's independence. The problems of nations and nationalities, minorities, women, parliamentary democracy and India's ambitions to big power status were examined and discussed in the way in which they have emerged today.

Dr K.M.Alamgir made a presentation that discussed at length the experience of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh over the past 25 years. The presentation dwelt on the serious shortcomings that are being revealed in the existing parliamentary institutions, and of their glaring failure to empower people, while instead serving to concentrate power in the hands of a small political and economic elite. He also cited the example of recent elections in India and the U.S. to draw parallels to very similar problems that are becoming apparent in these countries. He concluded by stressing the importance of intervening to reverse this trend by creating mechanisms to modernize and renovate the institutions of democracy.

S.Talwar made a presentation on the question of nations and nationalities in India. He drew attention to the history of the present Indian union, and to the numerous conflicts and insurrections that have continually erupted against it. He cited numerous examples including Nagaland and Assam in the north-east, and Kashmir and Punjab in the north-west to conclude that the the national question remains fundamentally unresolved today. Further, he discussed the way in which the dictum of "national unity and territorial integrity," posed as a matter of law, seriously exacerbates this problem, as it is routinely used to dismiss legitimate national claims in the political sphere as questions of "law and order."

Alok Mishra made a presentation titled "Women and Minorities" that discussed the struggle of women in South Asia, and of their relationship to South Asian women abroad. She explained that while these two struggles have a definite link, they have their specificities as well. She used the examples of Propositions 187 and 209 in California, and of the Mandal and Babri Masjid issues in India to illustrate that the problem of women and minorities appears as a problem in the sphere of rights. She explained that instead of recognizing the legitimate claims of minorities or women as fundamental rights, they are treated as a matter of privileges or entitlements, to be distributed or denied as an act of pure political patronage, with the aim of securing "vote banks." This system, she said, is creating and perpetuating a dangerous situation whereby the polity is strictly divided on grounds of religion, caste, and race, and where each group, and ultimately the entire society is then reduced to a number of lobby groups fighting for their own narrow interests. She called for people, including women and minorities, to oppose the worldwide trend of social cutbacks, and at the same time, to fight for a modern definition of rights for all society, within which the rights of women and minorities will be affirmed.

In the sphere of international relations, Dr Raj Mishra, a panelist, discussed the way in which the ruling elites in Delhi are emerging with very definite aims to secure a position for India as a big power. This is evidenced, he said, from the pesent economic policies being pursued, from India's recent attempts to secure a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and from its disagreement with the U.S. on the issue of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). He made the point that these moves have not gained India a position of respect worldwide because India is seen to be fighting for its own narrow "empire-building" interests, and not for the genuine democratization of international relations.

The second session was devoted to the recently concluded International Conference of South Asians in Toronto in which AIPSG was a co-sponsor. The first presentation by Hardeep Mann explained the decisions and outcome of the Toronto conference. Ms. Mann started by explaining the history behind the Toronto Conference, and of the significant preparatory work that went into it over the last ten months. This preparatory work, which included the founding of the Standing Conference of South Asians (SCSA), and the convening of four regional conferences held in Toronto, New York, London, and Winnipeg over the past summer - were instrumental in developing an agenda that was adopted at Toronto. She described the proceedings of the conference, which was attended by over 120 people, - primarily second generation South Asians and women, and explained the work that has emerged, particularly on the issue of identity, culture and racism, and of the decisions of the conference to launch a youth commission and a womens commision.

In a related paper, Rajesh Gopalan made a presentation discussing the topics of identity, culture and racism, specifically as they relate to the problems facing second and third-generation South Asian youth. He argued forcefully on the crucial importance of the question of identity, particularly of a collective identity that provides individuals with a sense of belonging and participation in a larger collective consciousness. Young South Asians, he said, are being incited to abandon their identities entirely, and to adopt an altogether racist and eurocentrist outlook towards South Asia. The attack on identity, and the "identity crisis" that it has engendered lays the basis for a much more serious devastation of the South Asian community than is apparent, he remarked. He went on to discuss the negative impact in the political sphere of a "hyphenated citizenry," of the definite needs to build and develop South Asian cultural institutions, and on the importance of opposing all forms of racism that are emerging.

The vigorous discussion that followed these presentations brought forth the immediacy and relevance of these issues today and of the importance of posing the question "Whither India?" at this juncture. The second session highlighted the importance of the question of identity, and confirmed the urgent need to tackle this issue in a serious manner. The conference concluded with the decision to set up a commission, to be based in New York, to begin work immediately on the questions of identity, culture and racism, and to develop a body of literature on this subject.

The day concluded with a reception held in celebration of the 10th anniversary of IPSG New York. The reception highlighted the continuous work that IPSG has done throughout this period, and brought together a cross-section of people who have been active with the IPSG over the years. It was highlighted that youth and students, who have always been the mainstay of this work, have never hesitated to take up causes "larger than life" and are today taking the lead in coming forward to define the agenda.